You Gave Me A Song: The Life And Music Of Alice Gerrard
The Carolina Theatre, Durham
When we first meet old-time musician Alice Gerrard in the new, locally produced documentary You Gave Me a Song, which screens in Full Frame on Sunday, she’s giving us a tour of her crowded home office in Durham. She gently winds a strip of images into a photo-negative scanner next to a MacBook and an external hard drive.
“For years, I just taped everybody and took photographs, and just carried this stuff around with me,” she says. The singer, guitarist, fiddle player, and banjoist began playing music in the midst of the 1960s folk revival. In the decades to come, she built a catalog as a solo artist, in partnership with the activist and musician Hazel Dickens, and in collaboration with everyone from banjo player Matokie Slaughter to multi-instrumentalist Mike Seeger. She chronicled these exploits diligently and often shared her knowledge in The Old-Time Herald, a publication she founded, which has documented old-time music in the Southeastern United States for more than thirty years.
“It was pretty clear that this amazing archive from the main character of the film was part of the story as well,” says director Kenny Dalsheimer. He built much of the film around Gerrard’s collection of photos, recordings, and ephemera, which are archived at the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC, where Dalsheimer also dove deep into the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project collection. It documents concert tours that, starting in the 1960s, featured black and white musicians performing together, in which Dickens and Gerrard both participated.
Producer Ashley Melzer says Gerrard’s interest in documenting the many personalities and players around her made You Gave Me a Song more than a biographical film. Instead, Melzer says, it’s “about that larger community.” Not only is Gerrard still around to tell the story, she’s still evolving and changing as an artist.
Gerrard is a “walking encyclopedia of tradition, but also an octogenarian who welcomes collaboration with young artists,” Dalsheimer says. “She doesn’t stay in one moment in time with her music.”
It was this complexity that drew the director, who had previously made documentaries about creative minds like environmental artist Patrick Dougherty, to Gerrard’s story. In early 2015, Dalsheimer was at a birthday party, speculating about potential subjects, and someone suggested Gerrard. He was especially intrigued when a musician said he didn’t like her latest album—the Grammy-nominated Follow the Music, which featured contributions from more youthful folkies like M.C. Taylor and Phil Cook—because it strayed from tradition.
Dalsheimer didn’t know Gerrard’s music well, nor did he know that they lived around the corner from each other in Durham. But over a couple of coffees, she agreed to participate.
You Gave Me A Song includes contemporary band practices with the Piedmont Melody Makers; interviews with the game, thoughtful Gerrard and her family; and intimate photographs—some of the loveliest of which were taken by John Cohen and Betsy Siggins—that show the everyday life of the musicians and music fans who have surrounded Gerrard over the decades. We meet a who’s-who of the rowdy D.C. folk-revival scene of the 1960s and learn of Gerrard’s deep creative partnership with Dickens and its difficult end. Melzer particularly loves the scenes that show Gerrard’s introduction to folk music in school at Antioch College.
“This particular group’s view of traditional music was very grounded, and it’s not about the shine and sheen of the folk revival,” she says. “I love all the pictures of Marge Marash and Alice smoking cigarettes and playing Carter Family songs. This music is not dead, it’s not cheesy, and it’s very much alive for these young people. And I think that’s something that a lot of people can identify with, that moment when you discover this old music and it feels like a lightning bolt.”
While the film has many sweet moments of youth, it’s also marked by Gerrard’s struggles. One particularly painful period was around 1964, when her first husband, Jeremy Foster, died in a car accident, leaving Gerrard to raise four children with some serious support from her community. We learn about the deepest scars and hardships not from Gerrard, but from her children and brother.
“Alice, in our interviews, wasn’t super emotional,” says Dalsheimer. “Others picked up on those parts of the story.” This ability to stay buoyant might be the survival strategy of a woman who has persevered throughout her life.
“I think the thing that has surprised me, in hindsight, is how much this film is about resilience,” Melzer says. “Alice is someone who, whenever faced with challenges, she met them, she dove into them, she sometimes even avoided them completely, but she is incredibly resilient.”